Defining His Legacy: Obasanjo’s Campaign to Situate His Place in History

The Book reviwer  Patrick Okigbo.

Patrick Okigbo reviewed Obasanjo's 'My Watch'

By Patrick O. Okigbo III

Patrick Okigbo reviewed Obasanjo's 'My Watch'
Patrick Okigbo reviewed Obasanjo’s ‘My Watch’

Let me start with a biblical quote that is presented in all three volumes of the memoir.

“Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the people of Israel; so hear the word I speak and give them warning from me. When I say to the wicked, ‘You wicked person, you will surely die,’ and you do not speak out to dissuade them from their ways that wicked person will die for their sin and I will hold you accountable for their blood. But if you do warn the wicked person to turn from their ways and they do not do so, they will die for their sin, though you yourself will be saved.” – Ezekiel 33:7-9 New International Version

This biblical quote probably best summarises President Olusegun Obasanjo’s perception of his place and role in Nigeria.

At the deepest level of conviction, President Olusegun Obasanjo believes that he is God’s Watchman over Nigeria and probably the father of modern Nigeria. This biblical fervour has guided most of his actions since he came to national prominence as Commander of Nigeria’s Third Marine Commandos who eventually accepted the surrender from breakaway Biafra in 1970. In the ensuing five decades, he has bestridden Nigeria’s military and political landscape as military president and a two-term civilian president – the only Nigerian to achieve this feat by the way. Even in the intervening years when he was out of office, he has engaged actively at various levels in attempting to shape governance in Nigeria. President Obasanjo has become famous for his “open letters” to all the presidents who have assumed office starting from President Shehu Shagari in 1979 through to the incumbent president, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan. He has corrected, cajoled and encouraged them, almost like a headmaster, to properly administer the affairs of state. It was one of such commentaries that irked the late General Sani Abacha into incarcerating President Obasanjo; a journey he wasn’t supposed to return from alive but then saw he return to the presidential villa.

“My Watch”, which runs in three volumes and at 1,572 pages, will leave readers confounded as to whether to classify it as a memoir, a historical document, or both. There are hundreds of pages of documents and private correspondences between the author and many of the leading political figures of our time. Clearly, these documents were included to validate and refute claims. However, there true value is in the substance they provide to serious students of contemporary Nigerian political science, and in deed, African history. Scholars would pore over these notes for decades to properly position the actions and inactions of our various political rulers. This book is very important because it may motivate the various political actors who have been taciturn in the inner workings of government to defend their integrity, explain their actions, and provide context. Readers should eagerly await the subsequent dialogue that is sure to ensue.

In terms of structure, the memoir, which is written in chronological order, is in three parts. The 500-page Volume One (Early Life and The Military) traces President Obasanjo’s early childhood from his birth on an “Ifo market day” (which is the only fact he knows about his real birth date) through his journey from the village to the city and then to the military. The man who gave Nigerians phrases such as “I dey kampe” and “I jus dey laugh” delivers this Volume One with great humour. Chapter 5 introduces another phrase “lofely” which was his mangled Yoruba-English description of travelling free of charge (“lofe”) on a public transport vehicle from his school back to his village in his early years.

Childhood scenes in memoirs are usually quite endearing as they show the now swashbuckling character in their most vulnerable stage. Even the most virulent of opponents find it difficult to dislike a vulnerable kid. Yet most of the fruits that are manifested in later life are sown in these early days. How much of the Obasanjo we know today was created in this childhood set in the idyllic Iwo on the outskirts of Abeokuta where the author’s greatest aspiration was to be a mechanic? Many readers would gain a deeper understanding of President Obasanjo after reading this Volume of the three volume memoirs.

Part II of Volume One chronicles the start of his military career, combat operations in the Congo, the first military coup, his close friendship with Chukwuma Nzeogwu – the leader of the 1966 coup, his command during the Nigerian Civil War, and his first time as military head of state. Those who have read his other books, “My Command” (1980), “Nzeogwu” (1987), “Not My Will” (1990), may recognise some of the stories. The benefit of the two and half decades since the last book is that he has used “My Watch” to update and address questions raised since their publication.

The author, Olusegun Obasanjo signs an autograph at the book unveiling
The author, Olusegun Obasanjo signs an autograph at the book unveiling

Part III of Volume One chronicles his life after the military administration up to and including his prison experience that yielded the book, “An Animal Called Man” (1998). Many Nigerians, especially in the younger generation, will enjoy Volume One because of its chronicle of the key events in Nigeria from independence to 1998. Some of these events predisposed Nigeria to the current state of the country.

The 672-page Volume Two of “My Watch” (Political and Public Affairs) covers the years from his release from prison in 1998 through to the end of his second term as civilian president of Nigeria in 2007. Most readers interested in Nigeria’s efforts at democracy and development will find this Volume to be a treasure trove of facts and data. It reads like a fast-paced documentary with a full cast of characters known to anyone who has been remotely interested in modern Nigeria.

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So what kind of man do we find in these pages? Probably the same Obasanjo you already know. A charming storyteller with a lot of humour and, in the same breathe, a dogged fighter who will uphold his convictions irrespective of negative or positive sentiment. How do you make enmity with a man who believes he is on watch for God over his and God’s people?

The author, in his watchman role, does not fail to name and shame those he considers to have worked against the progress of Nigeria. No one is beyond reproach. No character too big to be cast in what he sees to be their true image, which, in most cases, are contemptible. Do not be surprised if there are a few reverberating earthquakes after this book is in public circulation. Some personalities who have presented themselves as leaders and reformists will have to present counter-evidence to defend their reputation: Abubakar Atiku, Bola Tinubu, Tony Anenih, Nasir El Rufai, and many others. In the book, their characters are presented as defective as their personas are large. President Obasanjo described Vice President Abubakar Atiku as a “blatant and shameless liar”. Nasir El Rufai is described as “a brilliant man, economical with truth”. He was not much kinder to some Yoruba chieftains who he described as preferring rather to be “rulers in hell, if they cannot be rulers in heaven”. He described Chief Bola Tinubu as “definitely one of the worst cases” in terms of corruption. He is much kinder to General Mohammadu Buhari who he concludes “would not be a good economic manager” though he would be “a strong, almost inflexible, courageous and firm leader”.

The Volume Two is the main effort of the author to situate his legacy. The author outlines his credo before delving into a chest-thumping discussion of the various reform efforts of his administration: economic, financial management, social welfare, civil service, administrative enhancement, fuel, energy and power reforms, conflict resolution, and the truth and reconciliation commission. Even his most malicious opponents would grudgingly concede that Obasanjo’s administration brought vision and energy to the reform process, especially in the second term from 2003 to 2007. Where this book wins the most is in the evidence provided by the author to validate each of his pronouncements. Scholars and students of contemporary Nigerian history and politics will find this book as a catalyst to needed documentation of the Nigerian narrative especially on the inner workings of government. The hope is that this book will serve as a red flag to a bull. The expectation is that Obasanjo’s opponents will be incensed enough to provide counter-evidence to refute the claims he has made in this book.

The 400-pages Volume Three of “My Watch”, which looks at “now and thereafter”, belies the size of the punch the author has packed within the pages. The author decided that the Nigerian attitude of “siddon look” (wait and see) should not apply to one who has a divine calling to oversee the affairs of his people, whether in office or not. As such, he takes to task the incumbent president, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, and unflinchingly says that the president has failed Nigerians. This Volume presents a chronicle of what he believes are President Jonathan’s missed, missing and lost chances. He leaves no one in doubt that he considers the current administration inept and a colossal failure and wishes to see some significant changes. As is characteristic in the memoir, the author exonerates himself from any responsibility or blame for the failed leadership despite the fact that he was the principal architect of the Yar’Adua/Jonathan presidency that resulted in the current administration. Rather, still on the mission as “watchman”, he is again speaking out so as not to suffer the fate advocated in the biblical quote from Ezekiel 33: 7-9.

What most readers will enjoy about this book is that, true to his character, President Obasanjo did not shy away from addressing any of the more public episodes in his long public career. Like a good trial lawyer, he weaves a good narrative that absolves him of any blame while providing evidence to show where the blames should go. For the benefit of Nigerians and posterity, those the author has accused of wrongdoing should provide rebuttals supported with evidence. This anticipated exchange will help Nigerians connect the dots, see the true picture of what has transpired, and learn whatever lessons there may be from these earlier mistakes. It is, however, instructive, that the more personal, family scandals such as the allegations made by his first wife or daughter, are dismissed as personal issues that are being handled within the family.

The “Third Term” saga, which many would consider the major dent to Obasanjo’s global image as a leader with impeccable democratic credentials, is addressed in the book as well. The author presents annotated evidence to show that he had no desire to extend his tenure; rather, that it was the “monumental mischief” of his detractors and their co-travellers in the media that turned an effort at constitutional reform into a myopic argument about tenure elongation. He provides documentary evidence where those who should know (Senators Hambagda, Ibrahim Mantu and Florence Ita Giwa) exonerated him from such an agenda. He, however, accuses Vice President Atiku Abubakar as the one “who was behind the whole episode of turning wholesome constitutional amendment efforts of the National Assembly to a futile exercise and as a means of riding on its ashes to be a Nigerian President”.

So is President Obasanjo a saint or a sinner? Readers of the book will have to decide for themselves. However, one thing is for sure, the author is charming and his arguments and documentary evidence can be the “burning platform” for Nigerians to dig deeper and demand more answers. So this question may be irrelevant. What is therefore important is that he has written a book from his perspective and he has not pulled any punches. How great it would be for those who he has indicted in this book to provide their own version of events and present documented evidence to refute his conclusions. It is in the expected exchange that students of Nigerian history can learn what transpired and transpires in those corridors of power.

So what is his legacy? I suspect that as one of the most prominent leaders in Nigeria’s modern history, President Obasanjo’s accomplishments and failures will be debated and researched for decades to come and, as is to be expected of this type of leadership, the divergent views will continue for some time. However, one thing that most people will agree on is that President Olusegun Obasanjo brought energy, passion, and vision to the various roles he has held in Nigeria over the last 50 years. Being human, he had his virtues and foibles that played out on our public stage. However, the results of his reforms will be remembered as some of the flashes of brilliance in a nation that has not enjoyed so many of such; yet, the failure to entrench them will also be blamed as some of his failings as well.

In all, and probably most importantly, we must be thankful to President Olusegun Obasanjo for the discipline and commitment it took to put this history on paper. At least, we now have one side of the story. And that side is vicious enough that it should prompt a response from many quarters.

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your kind attention.

Patrick O. Okigbo III

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